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Egocentric Isaac

Updated: Dec 8, 2020

This post is a continuation of one my previous posts (this one here). One of Isaac Newton's qualities, apart from his difference in viewing the world and impeccable administrative skills, was that he was very ungracious and an egomaniac. And one of the many incidents that exemplify this behavior of his, given by Florian Freistetter, was the feud between Newton and the astronomer John Flamsteed. Flamsteed just wished to perceive the heavens. It was his grail to put together an inventory of the stars that was more comprehensive than anything that had been fabricated before. Unfortunately he did not live to see the publication of his life's work, and one of the people accountable for that was Isaac Newton.

Although their relationship started out pretty well, when Newton published his monumental work Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica in 1687, which laid the bedrock for natural sciences. He was able to manifest in the book that the same laws apply here on earth as in the heavens and that projectiles such as canon balls follow the same rules as planets, comets and other celestial bodies. However, to express all of these it was necessary for him to get hold of some valuable data and observations. That's where John Flamsteed came into picture. Flamsteed was a man who had spent an enormous amount of his time studying the sky from the Greenwich observatory. The days foremost problem was determining longitudes at sea, and it was Flamteed's responsibility to observe the stars and chart their positions to provide a solution for the problem.

Illustrating latitudes was no longer a problem at that time. Latitude is the measurement of how far north or south of the equator we are. It was sufficient enough to observe the sun, as the sun arose to its zenith everyday in the south. Also, people were familiar with the equinoxes, which marked the beginning of spring and autumn respectively. And from an astronomical perspective are the time when the sun is exactly perpendicular to the equator. As a result, it was pretty easy to consider a reference point and calculate the latitude with the help of the sun. But, it wasn't as simple to do the same with regards longitudes, since it was a difficult problem to choose a reference point. (more on longitudes in a future post). Anyways it turns out, the use of time was very essential in calculating the longitudes in the era, as a premise. And it was upon John Flamsteed to determine and to develop a mechanism by which the moon could be used as a cosmic clock that would be visible everywhere, where the moon is the clock's hand and the stars are the numbers showing the time.

It was at this time when Flamsteed and Newton started to measure the position of stars and determine the trajectory of the motion of the moon using the laws of gravitation respectively. Between 1694 and 1696, both of them worked together, but their collaboration came to a stand still when Newton moved to the royal mint, and later became the president of the royal society in 1703. But, later he did return to his study of the heavens and also planned to write a new edition of the principia Mathematica, to include a comprehensive mathematical study of the moon's motion. And this was the time when things got a little tricky. Newton needed new observational data for the study of the motion of the moon and he deliberated to get them from Flamsteed. While on the other hand, Flamsteed wanted to publish all of his life's work in his book, Historia Coelestis Britannica. For the stubborn and egoist man that he was, Newton did not give or rather he did not care less about any of Flamsteed's plans. He was only intended in getting the information about the moon and the planets, whereas everything else was redundant for his new edition. He had no interest or sympathy for Flamsteed's ideas or career. He was only interested in completing his own work and demanded that Flamsteed should assume the junior role, doing exactly what he wanted, that is providing the information that Newton needed and not making him wait for it because of some other scientific vows.

In what followed, Newton began to persuade Flamsteed which took a turn to threatening. In a letter to Flamsteed, he wrote that the two of them would become famous if Flamsteed would provide the required observations to help him, Flamsteed wasn't convinced, he wrote to an acquaintance that Newton was behaving in a "hasty, artificial, unkind, arrogant" manner, with Newton providing evidence of this arrogance in a further letter to Flamsteed. "I consider this theory to so complex and the theory of gravitation so necessary for its understanding that i am convinced that it can never be perfected by somebody who does not understand the theory of gravitation as well as i, or better than i."

On a previous occasion when Flamsteed had provided Newton his observational data, only on the condition that it wouldn't be passed onto others. But obviously, Newton never intended to do so, he sent the information to a colleague, without even mentioning that Flamsteed was the originator. Flamsteed certainly had no intentions of letting Newton dictate when and how he should publish his findings. Newton, on the other hand, was determined not to go without the data. If Flamsteed refused to cooperate , then he had to be forced to do so. Once again, Newton used the influence that he had, thanks to his niece, who had connection with the royal family, as a result he managed to make them order, that Flamsteed's findings should be published as quickly as possible. and of course, in that period Flamsteed had no choice but to listen to the orders. However, Flamsteed did not give in to the pressure and delayed the process.

A few years later Newton rose to the post of supervisor for the Greenwich observatory. This was the time when he revealed his true colors, as he was evident in his letters, he accused Flamsteed of treason for not releasing the data. He went to an extent of opening an envelope of Flamsteed's and publishing his incomplete data, Setting up the astronomer shocked to find his life's work was made accessible to the world in such a reckless and shattered manner. Newton along with his fellows messed around with Flamsteed's work, leaving him outraged at this gesture. Flamsteed at the end of it intended to cut all collaborations with the physicist, But Newton wouldn't let him get away, he felt that Flamsteed withheld information and that he had the ultimate power, under which the astronomer was "obliged" to give all the data that he had found. Their conversation went on peaking with insults.

Later on when the queen died in 1714, Newton lost his influence at the royal courts. Now, Flamsteed was finally heard by all the people, which gave him a sense of satisfaction. He continued to work on his Catalogue, but five years later in 1719 he died and he was unable to finish his final volume. However, the the final volume was published by his widow and two of his assistants, and in 1725, The Historia Coelestis Britannica was finally published, which has been referred by many astronomers in the following year and it remains of great significance in the field. If only Newton would have left his ego behind and had let Flamsteed get on with his work, he would have lived to see his publications. Above all, even when Newton received the data, he couldn't come up with a cumulative way to explain the lunar theory. He was unable to reach an impasse, which lead to a waste of a lot of resources.

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Eudes Fileti
Eudes Fileti
Jul 16, 2020

Hi friend, congratulations for this beautiful text! It's amazing things about Newton. Could you share the references you have used? Thank you.

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